An interview with Sandor Katz, circa 2007: Sandor Ellix Katz and The Big Food Battleground

In 2007 I did an interview with the ever-amazing Sandor Katz, whose book Wild Fermentation inspired me to make my own pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, shoyu, tempeh, and much more. It was supposed to run in Clamor magazine, but it closed its doors just before the issue with the interview went to press. In celebration of the New Yorker article recently published about him, I thought I’d post it here. (Hey, Grist did the same thing!)

Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements more than exceeds its tagline as “an instant classic for a new generation of monkey-wrenching food activists.” Covering all areas of the under-the-radar food world, from urban guerilla farmers to radical seed savers and foragers of all stripes (mushroom hunters, weed-eaters, dumpster-divers) Katz – whose previous book, Wild Fermentation, is a strangely readable and fascinating guide to the pleasures of fermented and live-culture foods – makes the case that we can solve the problems of our corporatized and corrupted food system with creativity, community, and good taste.

(One note first: I loved the book, but I skipped the chapters about “food” that I don’t consider food—milk and meat. I don’t agree with Sandy’s views on these topics, but he’s such a wonderful sweetie-pie and I have so much to learn from him that I’m able to move beyond what we don’t see eye to eye on—and for a non-vegan, he’s extremely vegan friendly, always ready to tell a story about an amazing vegan yogurt he learned about at a Slow Food conference, or a fermented barley dish he heard about. He’s respectful, and thus so am I.)

I recently discussed the food sustainability movement with Sandor Katz.

Lagusta Yearwood: What is your sense of how “everyday people” – not people in the “foodie” world, not food activists, vegans, chefs, etc. – are thinking about food lately? As a society, are we beginning to have more of an understanding of food sustainability issues?

Sandor Katz: Many people in the mainstream are very concerned about food quality, from trans fats to artificial growth hormones to pesticides. That’s why we’re seeing all the policies banning junk food from schools, and that’s why Wal-Mart is expanding its offering of organic products. Neither of these examples really touches on sustainability, though. Centralized systems—whether government policies or corporate policies—won’t create sustainability. Centralized powers are invested in the model of commodity monoculture agriculture and globalized trade, which are antithetical to sustainability. Movements toward sustainability are happening everywhere—in forms such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, community-supported farms, and groups recycling discarded food resources—but they are still in the margins, not in the mainstream.

LY: Do you think that there are an increasing number of the movements that you describe, or are they slowly dying out?

SK: I think grassroots movements for food sustainability are definitely growing. The numbers of community-supported farms and of farmers’ markets are rising fast. So are the numbers of schools, universities, and other institutions committing themselves to procuring foods locally. The raw milk underground is the most widespread form of civil disobedience in the U.S. today. Many people are being politicized as a result of their desire to feed their families healthy food.

LY: There is a lot of talk about how Americans are becoming more and more polarized and there is less conversation between different segments of society. Your book documents slivers of society that are very much on the fringe working in these “underground food movements,” yet the people you write about have so much to teach the wider population. I wonder if you think they are somehow pushing above ground and influencing how mainstream Americans think about food? Are we having a revival of caring about what we put in our mouths, or is it just the isolated pockets that you discuss in your book?

SK: Although these movements involve only a small minority of people, and exist on the fringes of society, I don’t think they are isolated pockets at all. For instance, the raw milk underground is populated by many totally mainstream people. These are people who have been compelled to circumvent the law out of concern for their health, or more often, their children’s health. Community gardens in many cities are tended by average working people, often immigrants, trying to raise some food for themselves and retain a connection to the land. Food activists come from every demographic category and are not a single isolated subculture. At the same time, many of the activist food movements have a narrow focus. We need to broaden this focus and build solidarity among the diverse range of movements that can be described as food activists.

LY: Do you have any ideas on how to bring this dialogue to the wider population?

SK: We need to keep on reviving local food systems and making them accessible. Food activists need to keep doing the work they are doing creating alternatives, while also broadening their agendas and their appeal. Everyone cares about food, and everyone hates to be judged. We can’t broaden the movement by shaming people for their food choices. We have to entice people by demonstrating how much more delicious, and how much healthier, locally-produced foods are.

LY: It seems that many of the stories you tell share a theme: how we can wrest control of our lives back from corporations. Corporations control and mediate almost all aspects of our lives, especially food, and, as you point out, organic food is no exception. The stories of the anarchist farmers, seed savers, “fermentation fetishists,” raw foodists, scavengers, and foragers in the book are stories of triumphs of creativity, local thinking, and the “small is beautiful” principle over the ease of buying our food at Wal-Mart. Can you talk about some very simple ways we can begin to get corporations out of our food?

SK: The first thing we can do to get the corporations out of our food is to start buying food directly from farmers. In the U.S., out of every dollar spent on food farmers receive about 19 cents. We can support farmers and stop supporting big corporations by buying food directly from local producers. We can also break out of the confining, infantilizing role of consumer and become food producers. Food activism isn’t primarily about protesting or boycotting; it’s about reviving local production and creating better food choices.

LY: Related to that, how can we expand this pocket of food consciousness that you describe without commercializing it and having it be co-opted by large companies, like the word “organic” has been corrupted?

SK: In the realm of food, we have to embrace an ethic of direct exchange, where people have relationships with the farmers who grow their food and the process of its production. This notion of local food production and exchange challenges and subverts capitalism’s tendency to market concentration and economies of scale. In computers or cars, those forces may arguably lead to greater efficiency. In food it’s leading us to ever-diminishing nutritional quality and resulting in disease epidemics and community economic disintegration. Every community needs a direct connection to farming and food production. It is the only true creation of wealth, and no community is secure without some direct connection to it.

LY: I enjoyed your critique of the Slow Food movement because of its upper-crust aspect and focus on “highbrow consumerism,” yet I also share your viewpoint that they are doing wonderful things to promote biodiversity and stimulate interest in “endangered” foods. I like Slow Food because it focused on pleasure – the idea that one of the main reasons we need to eat what is local and fresh is because it just tastes better. What do you think of the idea of a food revolution through the pleasures of the table?

SK: I absolutely agree. Food is largely about pleasure and gratification. Changes in people’s food behaviors are primarily motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. As I said earlier, shaming people about their food choices is not an effective strategy for change. We need to entice people with appealing alternatives. When Gary Paul Nabhan organized a 12-day, 220-mile native foods walk in the Sonoran desert, he and the other participants discovered that they had dramatically more energy from eating native foods rather than standard processed supermarket fare. Behavioral change comes about from positive reinforcement. Fresh food, and real food, tastes better than the products that fill supermarket shelves, and it makes you feel better.

LY: What are your predictions for how we will be thinking about food in the next ten years?

SK: I think in the coming decade we will be seeing devastating rises in cancer rates and other disease epidemics related to the poor quality of our food. I hope that more and more people will make the connections between these crises and food quality, and start seeking out and demanding real food unadulterated by genetic modification, artificial hormones, and chemicals. This means rejecting monoculture food systems driven by corporate profits and embracing small-scale local agriculture. Human beings, like all animals, are inherently capable of feeding ourselves. We do not need to be dependent on this profit-driven globalized food machine. We can liberate ourselves and take back our food, and we will.

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